THEMES, TOPICS, ISSUES
The introduction/Faith, from Ellmann, Richard and Charles Feidelson, Jr, eds. The Modern Tradition, Backgrounds of Modern Literature. New York: Oxford University Press. 1965.
Christianity and Christendom
The State of Doubt
Faith - Introduction
The declining authority of the Christian churches, with the decline of individual Christian faith, is a cultural fact that weighs heavily upon the modern consciousness. Responses to it are often indirect and only half intended, as in the quasi-religious vocabulary that enters into some of the most thoroughly secularized modern writing. More conscious and well-defined responses have been extremely varied. There have been attempts to turn the discrediting of public Christian institutions into a renascence of personal Christian belief; there have been reinterpretations of Christian doctrine and of the meaning of religion in general; and there have been embattled declarations of orthodoxy.
For Blake and Kierkegaard, both devout in their very different ways, the prime enemy of faith is not the professed atheist but the unconscious one. Religious institutions, simply as such, are anti-religious: the conventional believer clings to his church in proportion to his own lack of real faith and his secret commitment to an irreligious secular world. Blacks ridicules the nominal Christian whose recital of the Lord's Prayer is actually a worship of material power. Kierkegaard flails at the hypocrites of "Christendom" --his word for the publicly established play-acting that supplants private acts of devotion. Both of these kinds of religious decadence--materialism and mumbo-jumbo--enter in to Dostoevsky's horrific image of the Grand Inquisitor. In Ivan's story of the Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky ironically permits an eloquent and sophisticated exponent of "Christendom" to defend his improvements upon Christianity. The Inquisitor explains to Christ, who has miraculously appeared in Spain, that men cannot endure the burden of personal faith. The freedom and responsibility of faith, which were what Christ offered them, have turned out to be beyond their powers; they require a secular institution to provide them with bodily food, to tyrannize over their consciences, to satisfy their craving for tangible signs of grace. The Grand Inquisitor stands not only for the Church as a worldly institution but also for all forms of secular rationalism, whether authoritarian or ostensibly liberal and humanitarian. Through him Dostoevsky frames the issues [p. 883] clearly: spiritual freedom or enslavement to the things of this world, religion or the disappearance of religion in a specious substitute.^
While Dostoevsky's alternative to secularized Christianity is a return to a primitive Christian experience of suffering and love, Blake calls for an explosive release of human poetic and prophetic genius, which he holds to be the real divinity. But the divine man is not the natural man. Nature is in league with the "corporeal" eye to conceal from us the spiritual world that we would otherwise see. The visionary imagination, independent of physical nature and the organs of sense, is the divinity in man. It is universally creative and subversive of codified morals, a kind of spiritual energy, and it is one with Christ. Like Christ, human genius is the eternal redeemer; like the eternal poetic power, Christ acts from impulse rather than from rules. Faith in Christ as the best of men is for Blake faith in the imagination as the best of man; there is no other God.^
Blake's revision of Christianity is so extreme that at many points he moves close to Nietzsche, who rejects Christianity entirely. Nietzsche would doubtless say that Blake is using an outmoded language to express an entirely new sense of human life, for his own starting point is the psychological fact that "God is dead" --that we no longer think in terms of a supernatural divinity, though many are not yet aware of this revolutionary change. The creative will of man has displayed itself in the destruction of the idea of God; now it must go on to destroy its own limitations and strive to project the Superman out of itself. The lingering on of Christianity is the great obstacle to human self-creation and the coming of the higher man. This particular religion is, and has always been especially perverted. It suppresses instinctual life, exults in pity and passivity instead of the active will to power; its god is simply nonentity enthroned. Yet Nietzsche, the "hyperborean" prophet of the Superman, is himself full of religious fervor, and the Christian yearning for a savior reappears, strangely altered, in his dream of human self-overcoming. If Blake approaches Nietzsche to the extent that his God becomes Man, Nietzsche approaches Blake to the extent that his Superman becomes the image of a redeeming God.^
Arnold's idea of a "poetic" religion is based on a less exalted view of both poetry and religion than Blake entertains; and though he perceives, like Nietzsche, that the idea of God can no longer be invoked in the old way, he has no faith in a creative human will that is virtually divine. Religion, which once purported to be fact, is now only feeling, and it merges into another realm of objectless feelings--the realm of poetry. Art is thus the stronghold of rootless values, whether aesthetic or religious and moral, in a valueless [p. 884] world of skeptical science. But only by holding to such feelings of value can we remain human, and in this sense both poetry and religion are for the first time coming into their own. In a similar vein, Santayana looks back upon the original triumph of Christianity over paganism and declares that it was really an aesthetic triumph. Even in its heyday, the Christian revelation moved men because it was a masterful piece of imagery, a language that supremely revealed man to himself. Freed of all claims to extra-human reference, poetry and religion can be seen to have their function as "the moral autobiography of man."^
Writers like Lawrence and Gide also humanize and poetize religion, but they give a special turn to these strategies: they attempt to reinterpret Christ in a pre-Christian mode. They revive the pagan nature-worship that was long ago caught up into Christianity and transformed by it. This is their way of fixing upon the imaginative and vital energy celebrated by Blake and Nietzsche. Lawrence reports that two of the major Christian images--the Crucifixion and the Virgin Mother--have wholly lost their efficacy for the generation after the First World War. What is now relevant is the image of the Resurrection, and not of resurrection in heaven but of resurrection on earth, the pagan spring. Christ risen in the flesh is Lawrence's emblem for a triumph of the natural body and the instinctual and emotional life over the modern death-world of money and machines. That this is the essential Christ, according to Gide, is what Nietzsche failed to understand when he condemned Christianity. Gide undertakes his own exegesis of the Gospels in order to show that Christ proclaimed not an other-worldly salvation, but eternal life in this world. The true Christian, who has been submerged by the official creeds, is the joyful nature man.^
Paul Claudel, who strove for years to bring Gide around to orthodox Christianity, not only declares that Gide's idea of a "pagan sanctity" is a mockery of faith but also insists on the necessity of public Christian institutions. Art and beauty divorced from service of the Christian community are corrupt; individual speculation divorced from the service of God is sinful pride. Claudel speaks from the security of his own righteous life, but much the same orthodoxy is echoed by Baudelaire out of the depths of his despair. Baudelaire pictures the modern individualist as a nervous, cultivated, sensitive, but unproductive being whose aspirations, no better than hashish fantasies, become so megalomaniac as to make him believe in his own godhead.
More systematically, Maritain passes a sweeping judgment on modern secularism. It is heresy, and the root of the heresy lies in the philosophic [p. 885] dream of Descartes--a dream of the self-intoxicated human reason. Cartesian rationalism is disjunctive, splitting up the world at every turn: God and man, mind and nature, thought and feeling.^ Its aim has been to achieve human power, but its actual result has been ruinous in every dimension of life. To dissociate man from God, even with no anti-religious intent, is a self-defeating maneuver. It perverts the mind into a mere instrument working upon a mechanical nature; it desiccates the processes of thought and leaves the untended feelings to run riot. Only by virtue of man's metaphysical striving toward a transcendent God and by virtue of divine grace can there be any unity in the world or any worth in its various aspects. Reason alone cannot create a reasonable world. T. E. Hulme would agree, but with quite a different emphasis: he would want to add that there is no possibility of unity in earthly existence. While Maritain writes from a Catholic standpoint, Hulme's attitude is essentially Protestant. For him, the errors of modernism began not so much in Cartesian reason as in the Renaissance dream of universal harmony. Since the Renaissance, men have been trying to override the intrinsic oppositions between divinity and organic life, life and inorganic matter. A principle of discontinuity must be enforced; otherwise we mechanize life [the heresy of a misapplied physical science] or we vitalize god [the heretical religion of nature]. In particular, Hulme would combat the modern confusion of the divine absolute with the fluid, merely relative world of organic things.^ He foresees an abstract, highly stylized art, which will make use of inorganic forms to suggest he divinity beyond organic life.
Among modern theologians, Karl Barth is perhaps the most uncompromising in his determination to make no concessions whatsoever to secularism. He denounces all secularist influences as false gods, and he propounds the one God, the transcendent lawgiver, of a radical Protestant orthodoxy. The ideas and ideals that preoccupy us are simply idols, worshipped in the universities that are their appointed temples. In striking contrast to Barth, Paul Tillich would incorporate the entire burden of modern faithlessness within the Christian faith. He considers the sense of absurdity recorded by the existentialists to be a true gauge of the modern spirit,^ and he holds that Christianity must build upon it rather than brush it aside. Religious meaning, in Tillich's theology, necessarily involves religious doubt, the experience of non-meaning; it is not static but dynamic, not a result but a process. For him, being includes non-being, and through non-being reveals itself; similarly, faith reveals itself through despair and the surmounting of despair.^ [p. 886]
[The introduction/Faith, from Ellmann, Richard and Charles Feidelson, Jr, eds. The Modern Tradition, Backgrounds of Modern Literature. New York: Oxford University Press. 1965.]
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